Show me your Gaijin Card
All foreign residents of Japan are required by law to carry a Foreign Resident’s Registration Card, commonly called the “Gaijin (foreigner) Card” on their persons whenever they step out of their homes. (I have forgotten to take mine with me when I leave the house in the morning only three times in seventeen years. If found without a card by a policeman, we are taken to the police station and have to give and then sign a statement explaining why, and apologizing to the Justice Minister. This has never happened to me, but I have read foreigners indignantly describing their experience in newspaper letters-to-the-editor columns.)
A “foreign resident” is defined as a foreigner who is in the country for more than 90 days. So tourists from many countries - Canada and the United States, for example - while they need a passport to enter, are automatically given a 90-day tourist visa upon entering the country. (This compares to many countries where a travelers must procure visas before arrival.)
For foreign residents here, the Gaijin Card is the law. It supersedes our passports. In fact, we are not required to carry our passports at all if we are registered foreigners. Becoming registered involves having an address and a “sponsor” - a Japanese national who will vouch for you. Often, this is your employer, especially if your employer brought you to Japan - as an English teacher, or an entertainer, or what have you.
Having a registered address is very important for Japanese nationals as well, because it is a pre-requisite for services like health insurance, unemployment insurance, social assistance, pensions, etc. Technically, you cannot live in a place unless you have a registered address. It’s one way for the government to keep tabs on all people in the absence of a universal identity card.
The Gaijin Cards used to bear our fingerprints. But after decades of protests against the practice of fingerprinting - particularly by the large Korean minority in Japan - it was abandoned in the late-1990s in favor of the bearers’ photographs. Now, however, the government here is moving to reinstate fingerprinting for all foreign residents over the age of 16. It is now in place for all visitors to Japan, just as in America, and it is due to be reinstated on the Foreign Resident’s Registration Cards. Of course, the government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi touts it as a terrorist-fighting measure. But the common knowledge that such a measure will do nothing to deter terrorism and is in fact based on the deeply entrenched racist notion in the culture that foreigners are disproportionately responsible for crime (including terrorism) are ignored in the confidence that any proclamation of terrorism-fighting schemes are legitimately ennobling - just like in America.
How are the cards actually used? In everyday life, almost not at all. I have been asked to show my card about 15-times in 17-years - always by policemen who stop me at random when I am riding my bicycle on the streets to check to see if I am a bicycle thief on a stolen bike. It is a little bit of racist harassment. Under the law, only people with “police powers” have the authority to see the card or to even ask to see it. This includes policemen, magistrates, city and ward public officials, immigration ministry officials, and customs and immigration officials. That’s about it. It does not include doctors and nurses, teachers or other school officials, post office employees, or my landlord.
However, because the card bears our pictures and other vital information - employer, visa status, address, nationality, birthplace and birthday, etc. - it is a convenient piece of identification in lieu of a passport. And, Japanese know we have it, so many people who do not have “police powers” are apt to ask to see the card in daily situations: applying for a video shop card; opening a new bank account; renting an apartment; buying a house; applying for a bank loan, etc.
The problem is that although it is a good source of identification, nobody but the legally-stipulated public representatives has the right to see or to ask to see it. A passport or some other piece of identification ought to serve just fine. This causes problems because, as I said, Japanese know we have the cards.
“I know you have it, so why are you so stubborn? What’s the problem? Other people do it.”
Being stubborn and refusing or resisting to passively go with the flow is a great vice in Japanese culture, which demands at least the appearance of harmony and compliance. As I have written before, they are very big on appearances here.
I had a discussion like this with the woman at NaritaAirport’s Air Canada check-in counter when I began my vacation trip to Canada in June with my son. You know when you check in at the airport they want to see your passport and your ticket. Foreigners who live in Japan - even permanent residents like myself - who want to take a trip abroad and then return again need a re-entry permit to do so. If we don’t have one, then our visa is negated and our Gaijin Card taken and destroyed when we pass through passport control on the way out of the country. Upon returning we would start again at the beginning, with a 90-day tourist visa.
So upon check-in at the airport, if the ground crew sees that we have a return ticket they first check the documents stamped in our passport, then they ask to see the Gaijin Card to confirm. But they have no need to see the Gaijin Card. And, they have no right to see it. It is a crime for unauthorized people to see it or to ask to see it. So I politely pointed this out to the Japanese lady behind the Air Canada counter.
She gave me that infuriating, painted Japanese smile - the one that officials always wear like a mask when they are piercing me
with voodoo pins in their imaginations and silently cursing me for the dunce that I am.
“Everyone does it.”